Contact Us

Work and play

30 November, 1999

Dympna M. McMahon writes about volunteering for Children in Hospital, Ireland.

Children in Hospital Ireland (CHI) is a non-profit organization, which trains and places volunteers in children’s hospitals. Volunteers are vetted comprehensively by the Garda Vetting Office before any placement can commence.

Twofold service
The work of the volunteers is twofold, in our ‘Playwell’ and ‘Just Ask’ services. The ‘Playwell’ volunteers play with the sick and recovering children during their stay in hospital. Play helps maintain some normality for the children while they are ill. The ‘Just Ask’ volunteers offer support to the parents during what is always a stressful and expensive time for families.

Volunteers arriving in the hospital must sign a register before starting work. Most hospitals have well-equipped, designated playrooms where the children who are able to get out of bed come to join in the fun.

The young people are ready and waiting for the play to start so woe betide any volunteer who may be late! The children are very precise about what time their special room should open. It is funny to see them checking the clock and glaring accusingly at the unfortunate latecomer. In fact, they often ask the volunteer to account for this delay. If children are too ill to join in, the volunteers go to the bedsides and play with or read to them.

Not all children are lucky enough to have parents or a family member with them at all times, but CHI volunteers ensure that no child is left out. It is apparent now that children recover more quickly from illness if they can play, go to school while in hospital, have friends and live as normal a life as possible. This play is provided every day by many dedicated volunteers in eighteen hospitals all over the country.

Life-changing experience 
I joined CHI seven years ago as an Information volunteer (now renamed as the ‘Just Ask’ service) and have experienced a very different type of life since then. I have made many new friends. I have shared tragedies with strangers. My life has been enriched and I have undergone a deep sense of appreciation for all the gifts the Lord has given me in my own five healthy children. 

One cannot work in a children’s hospital without being affected by what one sees every day. Volunteering to work with children with terminal illnesses, with disabilities, with children undergoing operations and longterm recuperation, demands the strength to carry on without becoming engulfed in emotion. Detachment is an essential quality but it must be accompanied by compassion so that the volunteer can empathize with the needs of a sick child. It is a delicate balance but the volunteers of CHI manage it to perfection. 

My contribution to CHI has changed over the years. Because I have been involved with teaching and training in my business life I was asked by the organization if I would like to help with the process of training and recruiting volunteers. The cause is so worthwhile I was delighted to accept straightaway. I had visions of how I thought CHI might expand out of Dublin into the rest of the country. As a result of many hours in discussions we have managed to roll out the service to eighteen hospitals all over Ireland. With the continued support of CHI’s committed and ever-increasing team, we look forward to maintaining this growth.

I travel all over Ireland training and meeting volunteers, motivating them to keep up this greatwork, inspiring people who are thinking of giving time as a volunteer to do so, encouraging people to consider their good fortune in life and to give time to those who have not been so lucky. During these meetings I often ask the people, ‘Why do you do this work?’ The answers are invariably along the lines of, ‘We do it because we have been so blessed in our own families’, ‘We do it to give something back’, etc. 

There is one strong unifying force among the volunteers which enables us to carry out our work and that is the fact that each and every one of us was a child once. Many of the volunteers spent time in hospital when they were young. They know, first hand, what was bad and what was good about that experience. Some felt lonely and isolated; some were full of grief when separated from their families; some felt abandoned in a strange place. When they heard about CHI in later life, they joined in order to prevent other children from feeling this way.

A day spent in a hospital playroom with sick children is an experience. It makes you thank God for what you have. It is so rewarding at the end of a roster to know that the most vulnerable little people in our community have gained pleasure from your efforts. Volunteers are only asked to give two hours per week. Many want to give more. The work, although rewarding, is demanding and CHI is happy with two hours.

Outstanding service
Our Lady’s Hospital in Crumlin hosted the annual dinner for volunteers in the hospital canteen on 8 February this year. Among the huge attendance were three volunteers who had over 60,000 hours of volunteer service between them.

It was with enormous pride that CHI presented these women with certificates and gold pins to mark their outstanding service to sick children. They have come, week-in, week-out, for over twenty years attending to the needs of their little patients. In an era where cash is king, the dedication and nobility of these women is evident. (There are of course, male volunteers but women seem to outnumber them at the moment.)

I am so impressed by the kindness and charity of the volunteers I meet. In a world gone mad with consumerism and self interest, the love these volunteers have for those around them fills me full of hope. I marvel at the Christianity and the innate goodness of people. I feel humble to be with them. I hope the Lord spares me to continue this work so that my life can be touched and enriched by such wonderful people. I would wholeheartedly encourage anyone to join CHI and join in this rewarding volunteer work. 

If you would like to contact: CHI at Carmichael Centre, Coleraine St. Dublin 7. Phone No. 01 8780448

This article first appeared in The Messenger (June 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.